Where do they come from, what is their purpose and how do we learn them?

I decided to dedicated the following lines to my favorite dance prop – finger cymbals. I was lucky to discover finger cymbals at an early stage of learning oriental dance and they became an integral part of my dance routine ever since.

Did you know that finger cymbals were actually one of the first props used by Egyptian dancers?
We can find certain archeological evidence as far back as ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia are concerned. The first ancient Egyptian finger cymbals were made out of wood and ivory, in a rectangular or crescent-shaped form. Later, post B.C. and especially in the 17th and 18th century, we came across notes from different travelers from the west, describing dancers in Egypt, dancing with »some kind of castanets«. Even the famous, E.W. Lane, wrote about the Ghawazee dancers in his 1836 book, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. He writes about Ghawazee dance props as »brass castanets«.
Dancers from Egypt and the Middle East, who were taken to the World Fairs of Paris and New York at the end of the 19th century were almost all dancing with finger cymbals. If we take a closer look at the photos and the video material of Egyptian dancers from the early 20th century, we can still see, that most of them are playing finger cymbals. Later on, when dance and music evolved (the music ensembles grew bigger and they had a professional Sagat player), dancers didn´t have to play them anymore, and they started using other props.

Fingers cymbals are a percussion instrument
Finger cymbals are part of a large group of percussion instruments. In Egypt, they are called Sagat, and in Turkey, Zills. We can find them in various shapes, sizes, and bell heights. Sagats have one or two holes at the top of the bell. These holes are meant for elastic bands, with which we tie them to our fingers – our thumb and our middle finger. But we have to know that elastic, as a material, historically speaking, has been present only a little less than 200 years. Before elastic was invented, they used leather strips to tighten the Sagats to their fingers.

Where can an Oriental dancer use finger cymbals today?
We can dance with them to almost all of the »golden era« movie music (from 1930 to 1960 when black and white dance movies were made). You can also use them to dance to folk Shaabi or Baladi music and to almost all drum solos. There are also very nice classical Raks Sharki songs, especially written for dancers, and with some of them, we can use our Sagats.

Learning Sagat
I’ve been playing Sagat for almost 15 years now and I’ve been teaching them to my students for the past 10 years. I know learning them can be a real struggle, that’s why I want to pass on some advice, in terms of what to avoid while practicing:

  1. Always practice standing up and dancing! Never in a seated position! If you start practicing in a seated position, you’ll have to start all over again, when you start dancing with them.
  2. Maintain a daily / weekly routine. Decide how much time you want to spend practicing Sagat. My suggestion is 10 minutes per day for 3 straight weeks. They say, that if you practice something for 21 days in a row it’ll become a habit. I´ve tested it and it works.
  3. Start learning the basic triple pattern RLR (right-left-right) and LRL (left-right-left). After you´ve mastered this, you can start combining them with all other moves and steps. Later, you can go to the next pattern and repeat everything.
  4. It’s best to combine your daily routine in a way, that you clap to the rhythm without the background music half the time, while the other half with music.
  5. If your family and neighbors aren’t so fond of the sound while you practice, consider taking some old nylon stockings, and cut and wrap the fabric over the Sagat. This will muffle the sound and calm the people around you, while at the same time, enable you to keep practicing. Good luck!